The Jersey Brothers by Sally Mott Freeman

It’s raining; it’s pouring here in Houston, Texas. And Hurricane Harvey is headed for Corpus Christi and set to bring Houston a whole heck of a lot of more rain and possible/probable flooding. And my personal and family life is a bit of a mess, too.

However, if ever a book would cause me to pause and count my blessings, The Jersey Brothers: A Missing Naval Officer in the Pacific and His Family’s Quest to Bring Him Home is that book. I thought the scenes and descriptions in Unbroken by Laura Hillebrand were harrowing and violent and disturbing, but this book tops that one for sheer cruelty and horror, man’s inhumanity to man. It’s not gratuitous, either. As far as I can tell the scenes and events the author describes really happened and were the central truths of the experience of Barton Cross, an American Navy prisoner of war to the Japanese in the Philippines during World War II. YOu’ve heard of the “Bataan Death March”? Well, that’s described in this book in excruciating detail, even though Ensign Cross didn’t have to participate in that particular piece of history. (Many of his fellow prisoners did.) And the Battle of the Coral Sea and Iwo Jima and Tarawa—all described, again in horrific detail because one or the other of Barton’s two brothers were there. All three brothers were Navy officers, and the older two, Bill (the author’s father) and Benny, spent the war fighting on Navy ships or working in Washington, D.C. and trying all the time to find Barton, their baby brother.

Between the three of them the Jersey Brothers, called that because they were from New Jersey, had a sweeping view of the war in the Pacific, from FDR’s War Room in the White House to Pearl Harbor to the battles across the Pacific to the prisons and camps of Mindanao and Leyte and other Philippine islands. As I read about the experience each of the brothers and of their mother, Helen Cross, at home in New Jersey, I was overwhelmed with gratefulness both for their sacrifice and that of many, many others and for my relatively easy and uneventful life. We may have our problems, but not many of us since World War II have had to suffer or endure anything near what those “greatest generation” men and families did.

I was also convinced again that maybe the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the best solution for an intractable problem—that of ending the war with the least possible loss of life for all concerned. The Japanese were employing suicide bombers (kamikaze) to a much greater extent than I ever remember reading about, and they were not willing to surrender. General MacArthur was intent on invading the Japanese islands, but the predictions of 600,000 American casualties—or more—convinced Truman that the threat of the atomic bomb would save many American and Japanese lives. The army was predicting Japanese casualties during an invasion to run over a million. The Japanese civilians and military were instructed to fight to the death, and many, many were willing to do so. Deaths from both atomic bomb blasts were much, much fewer than any of those estimates and many times fewer than the deaths already sustained by both the Allies and the Japanese in the battles across the Pacific. As horrific as the atomic bombs’ destruction and devastation were, they were not nearly as cruel as the terror and savage brutality that the Japanese visited upon the prisoners of war and the subject peoples that they conquered and ruled over in the Philippines and elsewhere. Take what you’ve read about the Holocaust and the concentration camps in Europe and transfer it to jungles of the Philippines and Southeast Asia, and you will have some idea of the absolute evil that was put to an end by the evil of two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yes, the atomic bombs were vicious and horrible, but maybe it was God’s mercy that allowed it to happen.

I recommend The Jersey Brothers, if you are able to read about the savagery and the suffering that went on during the war in the Pacific. It did make me thankful for the problems I have and the ones that I don’t.

New York Herald Tribune Spring Book Festival Awards

In 1937 two awards of $250 each were established by the New York Herald-Tribune for the best books for younger children and for older children published between January and June. In 1941 the system of awards was revised. Three awards, of $200.00 each, were given to the best books in the following three classes: young children, middle-age children, and other children. Each year a jury, composed of distinguished experts in the field of juvenile literature, was chosen to make the selections.

1937 Seven Simeons, by Boris Artzybasheff. For younger children. Illustrated by the author. (Viking.)

The Smuggler’s Sloop, by Robb White III. For older children. Illustrated by Andrew Wyeth. (Little.)

1938 The Hobbit, by J. R. Tolkien. For younger children. Illustrated by the author. (Houghton.)

The Iron Duke, by John R. Tunis. For older children. Illustrated by Johari Bull. (Harcourt)

1939 The Story of Horace, by Alice M. Coats. For younger children. Illustrated by the author. (Coward.)

The Hired Man’s Elephant, by Phil Stong. For older children. Illustrated by Doris Lee. (Dodd.)

1940 That Mario, by Lucy Herndon Crockett. For younger children. Illustrated by the author. (Holt)

Cap’n Ezra, Privateer, by James D. Adams. For older children. Illustrated by I. B. Hazelton. (Harcourt.)

1941 In My Mother’s House, by Ann Nolan Clark. For younger children. Illustrated by Velino Herrera. (Viking.)

Pete by Tom Robinson. For middle-age children. Illustrated by Morgan Dennis. (Viking.)

Clara Barton, by Mildren Mastin Pace. For older children. (Scribner.)

1942 Mr. Tootwhistle’s Invention, by Peter Wells. For younger children.
Illustrated by the author. (Winston.)

I Have Just Begun to Fight: The Story of John Paul Jones, by
Commander Edward Ellsberg. For middle-age children. Illustrated
by Gerald Foster. (Dodd.)

None But the Brave, by Rosamond Van der Zee Marshall. For
older children. Illustrated by Gregor Duncan. (Houghton.)

1943 Five Golden Wrens, by Hugh Troy. For younger children. Illus-
trated by the author. (Oxford.)

These Happy Golden Years, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. For middle-
age children. Illustrated by Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle.
(Harper-.)

Patterns on the Wall, by Elizabeth Yates. For older children.
(Knopf.)

1944 A Ring and a Riddle, by M. Ilm and E. Segal. For younger children.
Illustrated by Vera Bock. (Lippincott)

They Put Out to Sea, by Roger Duvoisln. For middle-age children.
Illustrated by the author. (Knopf.)

Storm Canvas, by Armstrong Sperry, For older children. Illustrated
by the author. (Winston.)

1945 Little People in a Big Country, by Norma Cohn. For younger children. Illustrated by Tashkent Children’s Art Training Center in Soviet Uzbekistan. (Oxford.)

Gulf Stream by Ruth Brindze. Illustrated by Helene Carter. For middle-age children., (Vanguard.)

Sandy, by Elizabeth Janet Gray. For older children. (Viking.)

1946 Farm Stories. Award divided between Gustaf Tenggren, illustrator, and Kathryn and Byron Jackson, authors. For younger children. (Simon & Schuster.)

The Thirteenth Stone, by Jean Bothwell, illustrated by Margaret Ayer. For middle-age children. (Harcourt)

The Quest of the Golden Condor, by Clayton Knight. Illustrated by the author. For older children. (Knopf.)

Other than The Hobbit and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s These Happy Golden Years, has anyone read or reviewed any of these prize-winning books? I know of the authors Jean Bothwell, Elizabeth Janet Grey, Armstrong Sperry, Roger Duvoisin, Elizabeth Yates, John Tunis, and Ann Nolan Clark, but not these particular books of theirs.

Unlikely Warrior by Georg Rauch

Unlikely Warrior: A Jewish Soldier in Hitler’s Army by Georg Rauch.

Because Austrian Georg Rauch had a Jewish grandmother, making him one quarter Jewish blood (whatever that means), he was not made an officer in the army of the Third Reich. However, Rauch’s Jewish ancestry didn’t prevent him from being drafted into the German army and sent as a radio operator to the Russian front. Rauch wasn’t a Nazi nor was he in sympathy with Hitler’s political views or his plan for European domination. But that lack of patriotic enthusiasm didn’t keep nineteen year Georg Rauch from being expected to serve the Fuehrer and fight for the cause of Germany.

It must be World War 2 week here at Semicolon; it seems I’ve unintentionally been reading quite a few books set during that cataclysmic war. On Sunday I reviewed FDR and the American Crisis by Albert Marrin. On Monday, I told you about my pastor’s World War 2 novel, We Never Stood Alone, about the inhabitants of the English village of Stokeley and their more personal crises during the first years of the war. Yesterday I wrote about the young adult adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand best-selling and eye-opening biography of Louis Zamperini, Unbroken. And now today we’re headed for the eastern front, in Ukraine and Romania, where the cruelties and atrocities were, according to Mr. Rauch, just as abominable as the things Zamperini had to endure in Japan and in the South Pacific. (Comparisons are odious, but sometimes inevitable.)

By 1943, again from Rauch’s point of view, the average German soldier on the eastern front knew that the Germans were losing the war. Rauch just hoped to survive long enough to be sent home when the Germans finally surrendered. Unfortunately for him, as the war was ending Rauch was captured by the Russians and spent a good year or more in successive Soviet labor camps before he managed to finagle a place on a train back to his homeland of Austria.

As I read this book and Zamperini’s story in Unbroken, I found it difficult to believe that men could survive such horrors and emerge sane or even alive. Many did not survive, and many more did not survive in spirit. I wonder if I have what it would take to survive in such horrendous circumstances, and I really doubt that I do. If I were ever confronted with such a crisis as the Christians of Syria and Iraq are living through now, I would have to depend on the Holy Spirit to sustain me or the Lord would have to take me, because I certainly don’t have it within me to endure such persecution.

I’m rather amazed that anyone does. Unlikely Soldier is a good book about a bad time. I recommend it to adults, young and old, who are interested in an unflinching look at the horrors of war from a unique perspective, that of an unwilling conscript in Hitler’s army.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken: An Olympian’s Journey from Airman to Castaway to Captive, Adapted for Young Adults by Laura Hillenbrand.

I first read Unbroken, the life history of Olympic runner and prisoner of war in Japan, Louis Zamperini, in 2011, about four years ago. I was astounded and moved by this man’s story then, and as I’ve read more about him since then, I continue to be an admirer of and and an advocate for Hillenbrand’s book, Unbroken.

So, I read the young adult adaptation of one of my favorite books with both a desire to see it succeed and with some trepidation. It helps that this version of Unbroken was in capable hands, the hands of the original author Laura Hillenbrand herself. And honestly, although I could tell that the book had been shortened and that the text had been somewhat simplified, I couldn’t pinpoint anything that was left out. That makes for an excellent adaptation.

It also means that if you were looking for a book that leaves out all the violence and cruelty and general horror of Louis Zamperini’s stay in various Japanese prisoner of war camps, this book doesn’t do that. The book also doesn’t leave out Louis’s struggle with PTSD and his healing after the war as the movie version did. So, if your young adult, age twelve and above, wants a less intimidating version, i.e. fewer pages and no footnotes at the end, that still tells the whole story, this book will do the job. If your child is not ready for an introduction to the horrors of man’s inhumanity and cruelty, this book definitely won’t be a good choice.

Two of my own children read Unbroken (the adult version) while they were still in high school, and they found it accessible and absorbing. However, if your teen struggles with reading long books or just is in a time crunch, this young adult adaptation is well written and perfectly adequate. It’s not dumbed down, and the writing is still beautiful, detailed, and vivid.

I recommend Unbroken, either version, to just about anyone who’s interested in history or war or survival or World War 2 in particular or inspiring biography or the aftermath of war and the possibility of forgiveness. I’ll be looking for a copy of this young adult version to place in my library for younger teen readers.

A Train in Winter by Carolyn Moorehead

A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France by Carolyn Moorehead.

This book tells the harrowing story of 230 French resistance fighters, women, who were sent first to Auschwitz in 1943 and then to to Ravensbruck in 1944. By April 1945 after twenty-nine months of torture, imprisonment, and starvation, when Ravensbruck was liberated, only 49 of the 230 French women who had left Paris for Auschwitz survived.

Unfortunately, I had trouble keeping up with the various women’s names and backgrounds and feel it would have been better for the author to have concentrated her narrative on just a few of the women, those she was able to interview and get more information about. Nevertheless, the story of what these women endured at the hands of their Nazi captors was painful and appalling even to read about, and I was reminded again of just how cruel and sadistic we humans can be.

At the same time I was reading this book about these mostly Communist and atheist female resistance workers in France (only a few of the women professed to be practicing Catholics), I was also reading aloud The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom to my two youngest daughters. Corrie and her sister Betsie lived in the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands, and there their family ran an underground resistance network that mostly hid Jewish people and smuggled them to safe houses in the country or out of the country. In February 1944 Corrie and Betsie were arrested and sent to Ravensbruck, the same camp where the French women had already been transferred.

In The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom describes much the same horrific conditions that the author of A Train in Winter tells about as she relates the experiences of the French prisoners. They all experienced the same fleas, lice, nakedness, cold, hunger, violence, and brutality. Betsie Ten Boom died after spending about six months in Ravensbruck. Corrie Ten Boom was freed about a week after her sister’s death and sent home to Holland, her release due to a “clerical error.”

The contrast between the Ten Boom sisters and the French resistors was not so much in their circumstances, except that the French women spent much longer in prison, but rather in how they responded to and saw those circumstances. Nor were the French women any more or less courageous or perseverant than Corrie and her sister Betsie. Upon their return, however, the surviving French women “shared the same sense of alienation, loss, and loneliness. . . . There was no innocence left in any of them, and they would not find it again.” These women with their faith in country and in the Communist ideal “returned to families that had been broken up, houses that had been bombed or ransacked, children who no longer knew them. Many had husbands and lovers who had been shot by the Germans. Few, very few, found the life of happiness they had dreamt about.”

Corrie Ten Boom also returned from Ravensbruck traumatized and bereft. She had lost not only Betsie, but also her elderly father, Casper Ten Boom, who died in prison not long after the family was arrested. Other members of her family had been arrested and were believed dead. Her country, Holland, was in ruins. And yet, God turned Corrie Ten Boom’s life into a life of joy and forgiveness and ministry. Corrie wrote that it was those who were able, by God’s grace and mercy, to forgive, who were able to heal from the trauma and the suffering of the war. She went to live for another almost 40 years after her release from Ravensbruck, traveling all over the world and preaching the mercy and forgiveness of God for sinners.

The contrast between The Hiding Place and A Train in Winter shows the inadequacy of a philosophy based on the communist brotherhood of men. What happens when that philosophy is shown to be a farce in the face of true evil? Where does a survivor of such atrocious evil get the power and the trust to forgive, move past bitterness, and go on to live in community with other human beings?

The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages

I didn’t know until the very end of this book what the title “the green glass sea” meant, but it turned out to be an appropriate name for a particularly enjoyable book. The Green Glass Sea was the winner of the 2007 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, an award presented to a children’s or young adult book published in English by a U.S. publisher and set in the Americas. I certainly concur with the award committee and with several reviewers who liked the book a lot, including Kelly at Big A Little a, Bookshelves of Doom, and Betsy Bird at Fuse #8 (that last review is where I think I heard about this book and put it on my TBR list several years ago.)

Published in 2006, the book’s setting is World War II, 1943-1945, in Los Alamos, NM. I learned a lot, painlessly, about the Manhattan Project and the background to the development of the atomic bomb just from reading this book. I didn’t know that Los Alamos didn’t even appear on the map during the mid-1940’s, and that the project was such a secret that the scientists who were working on it had to live in a place called the Hill (Los Alamos). In the book kids and adults were told, “Off the Hill, you can’t tell anyone where you live, or who you live with, or what you see or hear.”

The setting and the characters drive the plot in this rather quiet story about an eleven year old girl, Dewe Kerrigan, who comes to I’ve with her scientist father on the Hill. Dewey is delighted to live in this math and science town as she gets to question famous scientists such as Enrico Fermi and Dick Feynman and scour the town dump for cast-offs for her mechanical projects built out of spare parts and ingenuity. However, Dewey’s scientific and mechanical interests make her something of a misfit with the other children in Los Alamos who call her “Screwy Dewy,” and when tragedy strikes, Dewey is not sure where she can turn for help.

The author makes some odd choices about verb tenses. The book starts out in third person, but told from Dewey’s point of view, in present tense, and continues that way for the first 37 pages. Then, it switches to third person, another girl named Suze’s point of view, past tense. The story alternates between Suze’s thoughts and feelings and Dewey’s, staying in past tense. Then later in the book, the author throws in a couple of pages here and there where we’re watching Dewey again, and her story is told in present tense again. I’m not sure what the point was. Maybe someone else can explain?

Such a great story, though. Dewey, and later the other main character, Suze, are very real characters with quirks and changes in attitude and demeanor throughout the book. There is some cursing in the dialogue in the book, which may bother some young readers, but it wasn’t overdone, just enough to be true to the times and the atmosphere. Suze’s mother smokes like a fiend, and the adults all indulge in the occasional beer or other alcoholic beverage of choice, again very true to life. I enjoyed getting to know all of the characters in this book, and I didn’t want it to end. So I’m glad to find out that there’s a sequel called White Sands, Red Menace. Dewey is a young lady I really want to know more.

Oh, and by the way, I loved the ending—very realistic in the characters’ obliviousness to the import of the news they hear on the radio about some place in Japan called Hiroshima.

YA Nonfiction: Two Holocaust Memoirs

The Boy on the Wooden Box: How the impossible became possible . . . on Schindler’s list by Leon Leyson with Marilyn J. Harran and Elisabeth Leyson.

Helga’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp by Helga Weiss, translated by Neil Bermel.

Both of these accounts, written by Jewish Holocaust survivors about their teen years in Nazi-occupied territory, were quite absorbing and harrowing, each in its own way. Mr. Leyson’s book has a two-fold purpose as evidenced by the dedication: “To my brothers, Tsalig and Herschel, and to all the sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, parents and grandparents who perished in the Holocaust. And to Oskar Schindler, whose noble actions did indeed save a ‘world entire.'” There has been some controversy over whether the hero of the movie Schindler’s List was really a an unequivocal hero since he was something of a contradiction, a womanizing Nazi businessman who nevertheless saved the lives of perhaps more than one thousand Jewish workers who were slated for extermination by the Germans. Leon Leyson has no doubts about the heroism of Oskar Schlindler since Leon was one of those workers who was on Schlindler’s famous “list”. The memoir begins with Leib Lejzon, now known as Leon Leyson, living in the rural village of Narewka in northeastern Poland. Leon says that when he was a boy “[l]ife seemed an endless, carefree journey.” First, Leon’s father moved to the city of Krakow to work, and then in 1938 when Leon was eight years old, his father sent for the family to join him in Krakow. In 1939 the Leysons’ idyllic and upwardly mobile life came to an abrupt halt when the Germans invaded Poland.

The Boy on the Wooden Box is an excellent story for young adult readers about the Holocaust and about the survivors, particularly the work of Oskar Schlindler in saving many of the Jews who worked for him. Leon Leyson’s mantra for survival could be useful to anyone who is going through suffering and hard times, even if they never have to survive something as horrendous as the Holocaust:

“a new phrase surfaced: ‘If this is the worst that happens.’ My father and mother also adopted this saying as a tool of survival, perhaps as a way of keeping darker thoughts at bay. . . . Whenever a German was near, we whispered to ourselves, ‘If this is the worst . . .'”

Helga’s Diary is the story of the Czech/Jewish Helga Weiss’s childhood spent in the concentration camp of Terezin, and then later at Auschwitz. The Terezin portion of the diary was written at the time of the events and edited later for clarity by the author. Helga’s uncle hid the diary for her at Terezin when Helga and her mother were sent on a transport to Auschwitz. Then, after the war, Helga retrieved the diary and added the details of events that happened to her and her mother at Auschwitz and on their final journey through Poland and Czechoslovakia on a “death train” as the war was drawing to a close.

Helga’s childlike confusion over what was happening to her family and to the rest of the Jews in Czechoslovakia, and then her growing understanding and horror, lend her story an immediacy that pulls the reader into the story in a way that Mr. Leyson’s story is unable to do, written as it was long after the events took place. At the same time there are questions left unanswered in Helga’s account, as there must be in any child’s view of the war. An interview with Helga Weiss in the back of the book brings her story up to date and answered a few of those questions. Other uncertainties in the story simply must be left open since we are reading the story from young Helga’s point of view.

Finally I leave you with Helga Weiss’s words on why her book (and by extension Leon Leyson’s book, too) is important and should be read:

Why should we read another account of the Holocaust?

Mostly because it is truthful. I’ve put my own sentiments into it as well, but those sentiments themselves are emotional, moving, and most of all, truthful. And maybe because it’s narrated in that half-childish way, it’s accessible and expressive, and I think it will help people to understand those times.

The Boy on the Wooden Box has been nominated for the Cybils Award in the category of Young Adult Nonfiction. Helga’s Diary, although eligible in the same category, has not yet been nominated. The thoughts in this review are my own and do not reflect the thoughts or evaluations of the Cybils panel or of any other Cybils judge.

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

What a delight! Navigating Early is just the kind of novel that the Newbery award-givers, who have already awarded Ms. Vanderpool’s first book, Moon Over Manifest, a Newbery Award, would love. And I loved it, too. Kids I’m not so sure about, but it might very well find its own audience.

As I was reading the book, I was first reminded of the movie Dead Poet’s Society. Navigating Early takes place in Maine in a boy’s prep school and in the woods nearby. Thirteen year old Jack Baker, having recently experienced the death of his mother, is a new student at the school since his father doesn’t know what else to do with him. There’s a quirky (math) teacher who tells the boys that math is a quest, just like the Arthurian knights’ quest for the Holy Grail.

Then, the focus changes to a boy that our narrator meets, “Early Auden, that strangest of boys.” Early is quite strange:

“He listened to Louis Armstrong on Mondays, Frank Sinatra on Wednesdays, Glenn Miller of Fridays, and Mozart on Sundays. Unless it was raining.
If it’s raining, it’s always Billie Holiday.
I had heard of Billie Holiday, the jazz and blues singer, but I’d never really listened to her sing. Her voice mixed with the music like molasses with warm butter.”

Even stranger, Early Auden is obsessed with the number pi, a number whose “decimal representation never ends and never settles into a permanent repeating pattern.” In Early’s odd and complicated mind, pi’s numerals embody shapes and textures and colors, and ultimately the numbers of pi tell a story, the story of a boy named Pi. The story of the boy Pi intertwines and meshes with the story of Jack Baker and of Early Auden, and somehow it all has to do with a Great Bear, a boat, pirates, an ancient woman, and a lost boy.

The theme of lostness and lost and found-ness is repeated throughout the story. Jack is lost without his mother. Early is lost without his brother who died in France in World War II. His brother, according to Early, is the one who is lost. Jack’s father is lost without his wife. The number pi is, according to a famous mathematician, losing digits.

“I really was adrift. No tether. No anchor. I saw a sudden burst of lightning, and my pulse quickened. There was something intoxicating about being completely alone and unaccounted for. I could travel to California or Kentucky or Kansas, and no one would even know I was gone until the following Sunday, when everyone would return to school. Of course, I didn’t really know how to go to those places. That was the nature of being lost. You had freedom to go anywhere, but you really didn’t know where anywhere was.”

Isn’t that true? We all have more freedom than ever before in history. We can go anywhere, do anything, but quite a few of us don’t know where anywhere is.

The book began to remind me of Don Quixote as I continued to read about these two lost boys and their quest in the woods of Maine. Early Auden is Don Quixote, tilting at windmills, following his quest, and sure of the righteousness of his cause. Jack is Sancho Panza, disbelieving but willing to come along and wanting to believe that Early has some special insight into finding the object of their quest. There’s even a girl (Dulcinea?), whom Early renames Pauline instead of her given name Ethel.

Then, I realized that Early and his alter-ego Pi were reliving the story of Odysseus. The boys encounter pirates, are rescued by a Great White Whale, are captured by an ancient enchantress, listen to a siren-song, journey through the catacombs, and eventually return home, after their long quest is ended.

I’m sure all of these echoes of famous stories, and probably some others that I didn’t pick up on, were intentional, and they made the story richer and more fun for me. I don’t know how many children would see the parallels, but they might enjoy the story for its surface meaning and its curious strangeness. Readers who have read and enjoyed the story of Odyseuss or those who like Gary Schmidt’s richly layered middle grade novels about boys and imagination, or perhaps fans of Alice in Wonderland or Don Quixote or of N.D. Wilson’s Leepike Ridge should definitely give Navigating Early a try. Navigating Early is also somewhat reminiscent of the adult novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safron Foer. Lots of echoes, and a credible entry into the Great Conversation. (Yes, I believe the best children’s literature is worth adult reading, too, and adds to the the Great Conversation just as much as or better than most “adult” books do.)

Winston’s War: Churchill, 1940-1945 by Max Hastings

Winston Churchill was an amazing man, full of contradictions, as larger-than-life heroes usually are. He was a Tory (Conservtive Party), and yet he campaigned for and won huge changes in the way war was waged. He lauded freedom and democracy as the highest goals of mankind, and he governed as a one-man show, a near dictator during the years of World War II. He was Britain’s beloved and greatest war leader of the twentieth century, and yet as soon as the war was won, the British people threw him out of office.

Mr. Hastings, a British journalist and author, shows Churchill with all his warts and also with all the endearing and audacious qualities that make him a fascination to historians and readers and students of World War II. I can’t rewrite the book here, so I’ll just give you a few sample quotations from the book:

“His supreme achievement in 1940 was to mobilise Britain’s warriors, to shame into silence its doubters, and to stir the passions of the nation, so that for a season the British people faced the world united and exalted. The ‘Dunkirk spirit’ was not spontaneous. It was created by the rhetoric and bearing of one man, displaying powers that will define political leadership for the rest of time. Under a different prime minister, the British people in their shock and bewilderment could as readily have been led in another direction.”

Churchill on Pearl Harbor and the entrance of the United States into the war:

“it was a blessing . . . Greater good fortune has never happened to the British Empire. . . . Saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful. One hopes that eternal sleep will be like that.”

Churchill on the Russians:

“Experience has taught me that it is not worthwhile arguing with the Soviet people. One simply has to confront them with the new facts and await their reactions.”

(I have learned this same fact recently about a certain teenage family member. Arguing is a waste of time and breath.)

Alan Brooke, senior commander in the British Army describing a scene in Churchill’s bedroom (of which there were apparently many):

“The red and gold dressing gown in itself was worth going miles to see, and only Winston could have thought of wearing it! He looked rather like some Chinese mandarin! The few hairs were usually ruffled on his bald head. A large cigar stuck sideways out of his face. The bed was littered with papers and dispatches. Sometimes the tray with his finished breakfast was still on the bed table. The bell was continually being rung for secretaries, typists, stenographer, or his faithful valet Sawyers.”

Marian Holmes, one of Churchill’s private secretaries:

“In all his moods—totally absorbed in the serious matter of the moment, agonized over some piece of wartime bad news, suffused with compassion, sentimental and in tears, truculent, bitingly sarcastic, mischievous or hilariously funny—he was splendidly entertaining, humane and lovable.”

The author’s summation:

“Churchill had wielded more power than any other British prime minister had known, or would know again. . . Himself believing Britain great, for one last brief season he was able to make her so. To an extraordinary degree, what he did between 1940 and 1945 defines the nation’s self-image even into the twenty-first century.
His achievement was to exercise the privileges of a dictator without casting off the mantle of a democrat. Ismay once found him bemoaning the bother of preparing a speech for the House of Commons, and obviously apprehensive about its reception. The soldier said emolliently: ‘Why don’t you tell them to go to h—?” Churchill turned in a flash: ‘You should not say those things: I am the servant of the House.'”

Hastings catalogues all of Churchill’s mistakes and disasters, and there were many throughout the war. But the author’s admiration and appreciation for Winston Churchill’s leadership during World War II shines through. Churchill comes across in this slice of his biography as The Indispensable Man without whom Hitler and his Nazis could not have been defeated. I’m sure a counter-argument could be mounted, but Churchill himself would have brushed all argument aside, a demagogue in the most admirable and heroic sense of the word.

Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff

World War II, in addition to being The Good War fought by the Greatest Generation, continues to provide a wealth of lessons, images, illustrations, and just good stories for authors to mine and for readers to appreciate. Lost in Shangri-La, subtitled “A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II,” is one of those many stories that can inspire and educate us today, some sixty odd years later.

The episode took place in Dutch New Guinea (later called Irian Jaya and West Papua, a part of Indonesia) in the waning years of the war, 1945-1946. Twenty-four AMerican servicemen and WAC’s boraded a transport plane for a sight-seeing trip over the Baliem Valley, also called by the service personnel that discovered, Shangri-La Valley because it reminded them from the air of James Hilton’s novel, Lost Horizon. The plane crashed, and three of the twenty-four miraculously survived the crash. However, the three were trapped inside a valley that was inaccessible to airplanes, and between them and the coast where Allied base were, was miles and miles of jungle, home to possibly hostile tribesmen and also possibly filled with Japanese soldiers who had yet to surrender. And to compound the problem of getting back to their comrades, the three survivors were covered with serious burns from the crash that were in danger of turning gangrenous.

The mountains were too high for helicopters. The valley was too narrow for planes to land, and there was no suitable runway anyway. The jungle was too thick fro planes to even spot the survivors from the air. How were the three to be rescued? The story of how and who did it and what the crash survivors encountered in the valley of “Shangri-La” is quite fascinating.

I was reminded of the missionary story, Peace Child by Don Richardson. Mr. Richardson worked with the Sawi people of Papua somewhere in or near the Baliem Valley where the people in Lost in Shangri-La were marooned. He was also in contact with the Dani and Yali tribes, the same peoples with whom the survivors of the Shangri-la plane crash found refuge. After the war, many of these isolated Papuan tribespeople were introduced to Christianity and prepared by missionaries for their inevitable encounter with Western culture.

It was fascinating to get a glimpse of these tribes in their pre-Western-influenced and pre-Christian cultures. Obviously, the coming of Western influences to these tribes has been a mixed blessing. Before World War II the Baliem Valley was largely unexplored and isolated from the rest of the world. Now, although the valley is still somewhat isolated because of its inaccessibility, most of the native people claim to be Christians, and the wars between villages that took place with regularity before are no more the men’s favorite pastime.

At any rate, if you’re interested in these sorts of things—isolated people groups and cultures, World War II stories of adventure and bravery, historic encounters between modern and prehistoric groups of people— Lost in Shangri-La should be just the ticket.

Similar and related books:
The Airmen and the Headhunters: A True Story of Lost Soldiers, Heroic Tribesmen and the Unlikeliest Rescue of World War II by Judith Heimann.
Peace Child by Don RIchardson.
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand.

What is your favorite (true) World War II story?